Sammie Rae Jones
The crimson morning light peaks over the fiery Kenyan hills and shoots through my window in translucent orange rays. Brilliant and buoyant enough to wake a sleeping giant, the sun travels on thick beams of dust into my modest one-room hut. I roll out of my thin teal sheet and lean my head through the open window to greet the heat of the day. The wood creaks and cringes like the joints of my forty-something body, as the furious 7AM warmth floods my face. I let it engulf and wash me from the world of dream and into reality. This realm of insects and fronds, this world of chaos and cohesion, and this mess of amazing creatures all living together in leafy complexity is what I’ve always wanted. I just needed a gentle nudge to realize it.
I know they’re all up by now, kicking sand and playing by the stream, no doubt. I lean on the windowsill, feeling the peeling paint scratching my elbows, and smile at my family. Celine and Nikka are washing their stone colored hides along the bank. Alana and Layna clumsily trot circles around them, their trunks not yet under their control and whipping round their faces. My eyes rest on Evan wading in the sparkling river, his beloved Shannon following close behind. I will never again have a love like theirs, and that’s okay. It’s the life I chose at a crossroads and one that I’ve never regretted. I close the window and slide my crutch toward me, fingering the worn divots in my hand. It’s time to greet my beasts.
When I was a child, living with elephants was not something that I imagined I’d grow up to do. I had wanted to be a librarian. There was something magical and sacred about the crisp musty air, the fragrant dust of old pages turning, and the hum of the overhead fluorescent lights. When I was really little, maybe five or six, Auntie Kristie used to bring me to story time at the Bourne library with my boisterous cousins. It was the only break from the disordered politics that children create in at-home-daycares, and the only time my six cousins would be quiet and still. I would sit a few heads taller than the other children in my hot pink wheelchair, and listen in wonder as the librarian read to us. She always kept the pictures to herself until the last moment, just before licking a finger to turn the page. I wanted to be just like her, Mrs. Henry. The orange spectacles, the glass blown earrings, the light beeping of the scanner as she swept her bangled arm over the plastic covered tomes, and her murmuring to herself as she packaged each order with a complimentary bookmark. I always imagined that she was reciting all the words she’d ever read under her breath, as if the information she’d learned from those books was too much to contain in her head, so it spilled out in mumbles. I wanted what she had. Behind a desk you could be, or appear to be, whatever you wanted.
Each time we returned to my aunt’s daycare, I’d whisk into the playroom and slide into my fort made from those parachutes kids use in gym class, and scour my finds of the day. My favorite books were on elephants. What was it about them? Was it their big bodies that made me feel larger? Was it the fact that they had an extra appendage, as if it could replace the one I missed? I’d hide with my creatures in my fort while the shadows of my rambling cousins danced around me, playing their games. I’d ignore their jeering silhouettes as best as I could and cover my right leg with a book where it tapered off at mid-thigh. Red, then green, then blue, my cousins circled the makeshift tent that I had secured between chairs, drawers and tacks, and I’d thumb through my glossy picture books, reading about what these other creatures could do. They could smell and breathe and call and drink from their trunk. They could dig for food and scrape the bark from trees with their tusks. But what fascinated me the most was their families. The parents always stayed with the babies, often scooping them up and sweeping them closer with their magical limb.
I had often wondered why Mom kept me and not my younger brother, Jared. He was born beautiful and whole, and I had always been missing something. Yet, when Mom and Dad agreed to split custody, Jared was the one to go with Dad to Florida. I had always imagined what life would be like if I were in his place. The sun, the green life during all seasons, the fishing trips and tanned skin. Maybe Dad and I would go out for dinners and he’d say “order whatever you want.” Or maybe we’d take strolls by the docks at twilight, the red and green boat reflectors twinkling in the rocking motion of the waves. And maybe Dad would read the books to me that I’d picked up from the library. I was sure that he read to Jared, but of course I didn’t have any proof. Mom didn’t let me call or communicate with them.
Around the age of ten, my cousin, Brooke, confirmed my worst fears. We were playing school one summer day when I told her that after Mom picked me up from Auntie Kristie’s daycare every day, my evenings usually went the same way. Mom would roll me in front of the television, and while I watched “Three’s Company,” she’d drop a plastic plate of half defrosted fish sticks on my lap, and then lock herself in her room for the rest of the night. On one of these evenings, as Mom started to walk toward the kitchen and inevitably up the stairs to her self-made prison, I saw that she was holding a book. Looking back, I realize it had been one of those trashy romance novels- with two tanned, half-naked bodies sprawled across the cover- but back then I saw a connection. I’d found something that we both had in common. “Mommy, I like to read too,” I said, causing her to look over her shoulder with weary eyes. “Would you want to borrow one of my elephant books?”
“That’s nice, but no.” Her eyes held more patience than usual.
I wanted to take advantage of the slight flicker of affection as long as possible. “I want to be a librarian,” I added to entice her.
“That’s a good dream,” she said, beginning to walk away again, “but we all want a lot of things….”
When I had mentioned the fish stick routine to Brooke, she only smirked. “What do you expect?” she said all-knowingly. “You’re too much to handle.” When I started to cry, her shadow loomed over me. “I’m the teacher,” she snapped. “If you cry, I’ll hit your hand with the ruler.” I rubbed my eyes until her standing image before the painted chalkboard came back into focus. Blurred around the edges, I watched Brooke point at the board with her weapon and I swallowed the sadness that I was never brave enough to question aloud again. All these years later, I can still feel those stifled tears in my throat.
It wasn’t until college, when I met Linda that I started to question what I truly wanted to be. It was the typical English 101 class but with a hard spin in our vegan professor’s favor. She had unsteady nerves and carried around a crumpled paper bag with her everywhere. Each assignment she gave was vehemently based around animal rights, and it was during one of the morning PeTA video screenings when Linda first nudged me with her elbow. When I turned my head, she was rolling her eyes dramatically. I remember thinking how beautiful she was, even with her purple birth mark covering half of her face. “Do you think she’ll fail us if we’re not all vegan by the end of the semester?” she asked.
An unbidden giggle escaped my mouth and Miss Talbot shot a glare in my direction. “Do you think this is funny, Raven?” She motioned toward the barrels of animal skins on the small television at the head of the classroom. I straightened and shook my head. “I thought you were better than this… to snicker at the decapitation of poor, defenseless animals, especially when you….” A hush fell over the room. A burning sweat began to welter around the back of my neck and ribs, as if my heart was leaking.
“We are better than that,” Linda said with her Texas drawl. “My friend and I weren’t laughing at the video. We were just wondering if watching this torture was going to somehow help us write better.” I will never forget how fuchsia Miss Talbot’s malnourished face turned under her truffles of red hair. She paused the video with a shaking hand, quietly walked out of the room and returned minutes later after having clearly huffed from her paper bag in the hallway.
“I was half joking about all that vegan stuff,” Linda said the following week with a laugh, slicing her oily grilled cheese into triangles. We’d started to hang out regularly, always the last to remain in the dining hall, lost in our tangents and talks. From where we were sitting, I’m sure people who didn’t know us thought we were sisters. We had the blonde hair, the hazel eyes and the long leg/s. They probably looked at us and thought that Linda was the lucky one out of two estranging birth defects. “I love animals,” Linda continued. “I wanna be a travel writer. I’m going to explore everywhere and live amongst people like an anthropologist. I’ll just be one of them, you know?”
“Wow,” I said between spoonfuls of minestrone. “That’s an amazing dream.”
“It’s not a dream. It’s reality.” She dropped her grilled cheese onto her plate. “I’m going to travel, live with elephants or something, and work really close with them. I’ll even have an elephant assistant.” Her eyes lit up. “Evan… Evan the elephant butler!”
“Evan?” I laughed. “Why not something more lavish, like Esmeralda? Or Eloise?”
“No, it has to be Evan.” She struck a serious expression before erupting in giggles. I mirrored her laughter but my face must have betrayed my thoughts. “What’s wrong?” she asked.
“I could never do that,” I said, shaking my head.
Linda sighed. “You gotta grow out of your self-pity, Raven.” She nudged me with her elbow and winked before taking another bite of her grilled cheese. Grease dripped down her chin. “You’re better than that.”
I responded by slurping the last of my ice water, torn between irritation and fascination. I cast my eyes down and listened to her pick up where she left off, rambling about the wonders of Africa. She listed the marvel of the sunrise, the opportunities to chimpanzee trek, and the fascinating risk of malaria. All the while, she motioned excitedly with her hands, illustrating the unseen in the air with her roving fingertips and choppy elegance.
It was just before Christmas vacation, during that lull between the end of classes and the start of break, that I first felt the shock of those finger tips. A small group of students had gathered to watch “Back to the Future” on the television stand in the lecture hall of the science building. Someone from Animal Lab had the key and had organized this innocent viewing. I was just happy to absorb any time I could with Linda before she left me behind for break. As usual, she sat beside me. At the moment where Marty Mcfly meets his mother in the past, her fingertips touched down lightly on my hand like cold drops of ice. I wondered what it meant, how I should react, my heart’s beat peppering an unsteady rhythm. I worried that she’d pick up my pulse through my skin, how it was thrumming wildly enough to echo in my ears and drown out the voices on screen. Her chill permeated mine until the connection warmed as it remained. When the movie was over, Linda retrieved her hand and smiled at me as I tried to appear calm. “What’s wrong?” she asked. “Did you not like it?”
For a moment, I wondered if she meant the hand-holding. I took a gamble. “No, it was great! I saw it over the summer when it came out.” I fidgeted with the desk attachment to the auditorium chair.
She squinted at me. “So why are you all shaky and weird?”
“I guess it just reminded me that I have to go home soon and… see my mom,” I said, choosing the easier of two difficult truths.
“What’s she like?” She tilted her head.
“I don’t know.” I looked down at my hands. “We don’t really talk. Never have.”
At the end of our first year, on the morning of April 26th, Linda woke me up by calling me on my dorm phone. It was 7AM, three hours before my earliest class, and a crime against nature. “Happy birthday!” she squealed.
I groaned. “You could have waited to say that in class.”
“I won’t be there. I have some things I have to do today. Just be at The Red Room tonight at nine… and dress nice.” The phone clicked silent. I rolled over, but before I could fall back into a fast sleep, I laughed into my pillow. A surprise party. How subtle.
The Red Room was a well-known tribute to a speakeasy, with dim lighting, watered down drinks, and conveniently located just off campus. There was limited entertainment in the Berkshires, so when we started to feel the itch of cabin fever, we’d go for a hike, hop a shuttle to the only downtown café, or grab a drink in this lounge that never checked ID. Linda said she loved the place for its darkness, its seclusion and shadow in every booth even at its busiest. But I knew she loved it for its romantic flair; the red lighting, the food coloring in the cocktails, and its name which, to her, embodied the color of passion.
That night, I wore black boots and a red velvet dress as I wheeled toward the ornate iron and heavy oak door. I paused before it, then swerved to the right, rounding the building. Linda would be expecting me from the front, thinking she’d surprised me with her very obvious plans. I took the ramp, and slid into the darkness of the back entrance, smiling at my cleverness.
There were approximately thirty shadowed bodies standing in the dark, facing the opposite door. I wondered how Linda had found so many people to come to a party for me. I was thinking she’d probably just invited everyone from one of our classes, or maybe even dragged every stranger in the bar into her plans, when I saw a shadow of her springy step striding across the room. “Everyone ready?” she whispered. “This has to be perfect. It’ll mean the world to her.” At that moment, it struck me how cruel I was in trying to get the better of her. She was doing something sweet for me and I should have been playing along, even if it was excruciatingly apparent. I began to push my wheels in reverse and back out the way I’d come in. I was almost through the door when my right wheel gave a high-pitched squeeeeeak. All heads turned and Linda’s lithe figure marched toward me with a look of confusion as she emerged into view. “Raven?”
“Hi,” I muttered weakly. A few party goers in the background chanted “surpriiiise” mirthlessly.
“What are you doing here? I mean, why here? Why not the front?” Her eyes shone with the hurt of her foiled plans.
“I wanted to surprise you.”
“Surprise me?” She smiled then, her teeth gleaming in the dark.
“It’s not like you were very covert.” I laughed. “You can’t surprise me, Linda.”
“Oh yeah?” She leaned forward over my chair, supporting her elbows on the armrests. Her face, sculpted by shadows, was less than an inch from mine, her breath warm. I took a sharp inhale but couldn’t manage to let it out. Her smile tilted mischievously before she leaned further forward, pressing her lips against mine. My heart thundered in my ears and suddenly the air I’d been holding in came rushing out. I was paralyzed beneath the weight of her lips, and a moment later, she pulled away. She must have watched with that same coy smile during the time it took for me to open my eyes again.
“Did that surprise you?” she asked.
Before Linda, I never imagined I could go very far on one leg, and to be honest, I didn’t think I cared to. Her snarky enthusiasm inspired me to wonder what I could dare hope for. We’d stroll around the Berkshire campus together, revel in the first snowfall or spring bloom, and talk about what the future would be like for us. It was during one of these walks, Linda wheeling me under the one cherry blossom tree in the quad, when a hawk flew over our heads and landed on a branch above us. Linda said that was a good omen for our relationship, and I smiled at her strange optimism. With the waning sun setting off the lavender undertones in her birth mark, the skin of her face reminded me of the careful brushstrokes in that famous painting of water lilies. Suddenly, she looked at me seriously and I imagined she was going to tell me she loved me.
“Why don’t you get a prosthetic?” she asked.
A branch rearranged itself in the oncoming twilight, casting a shadow on us, and I spoke too soon. “Why don’t you get plastic surgery?” For a moment, her face contorted in such a way that I was sure she was going to leave me there.
“It’s not the same thing, Raven.” I felt my cheeks begin to burn. Linda sighed and shifted her feet. I knew she was choosing her words carefully. “You even told me your doctors want you to use your good leg more. They gave you those exercises, right? I just wonder why you choose to sit. That’s all.” I stared at her for a moment, my throat starting to constrict. “It’s your mom, right?” She tapped her leg impatiently, and took a deep breath. “Raven, she doesn’t have power over you anymore. You’re not the little kid you were under her roof.”
I raised my hand before my face to silence her. I had known the conversation would drift toward my mother. I’d tried to tell her countless times that I couldn’t just forget the things my mom had said to me. Her words all too often echoed through my mind. I could still feel her behind my chair, pushing me begrudgingly through the grocery store.
“God,” Mom exhaled, “there’s not enough space on your chair to hang the produce.”
I shifted the basket of milk, juice and bread in my lap. “I can wheel behind you and you can use a cart.”
“No you can’t,” she said. “You’d spill the groceries.”
“You could put these groceries in the cart too,” I said helpfully.
“Raven, honestly,” she shook her head in a way that would sway her hair if it hadn’t been tied in her usual tight bun, “you can’t walk, you can’t help me with groceries… what can you do?”
Linda looked at me soberly in the dwindling daylight, waiting for my rebuke, anger lightly touching her features. “I thought you were the one person who understood…,” I said.
Something in her eyes shifted then. “Touché,” she answered with what sounded like gravel in her throat. She pulled her usual grin back together and reached up to pick a blossom. The hawk on a branch above us opened it wings, lifted lightly and took off toward the sunset. Linda knelt down before me, tucked a strand of hair behind my ear, and placed the flower there. “We’re both beautiful regardless,” she said. “Wheelchair, birth mark and all.”
That night in my tiny dorm, I finally showed Linda my elephant books. Of course, they were thicker and heavier than the ones I had read in my parachute fort, but my hands shook as I handed her my heart in paper. I watched her pore over them, just like I had years before, and in the silence of her reading, like a long inhale, I felt that I finally knew contentment. After observing these treasures for minutes, she looked up at me with ignited eyes. “We will travel the world together,” she said. I was too touched to answer, but I knew that I’d go anywhere with her. I somehow believed that we could be a sort of strange, unconventional family, living the sort of strange and unconventional life that two misfits would. If anyone was going to live out their dream, it should have been her.
It was the fall of our senior year when we celebrated our three year anniversary with apps and cocktails at The Red Room, and then went back to the dining hall to share a key lime pie. At midnight, we parted ways beneath the cherry blossom tree with a meringue kiss, and the next morning she didn’t wake up. I hadn’t known it was possible for someone so young and healthy to have an unknown heart problem. She had shown no outright symptoms of weakness, no shortness of breath, yet the leaking valve had been there all along. I hid in my room for two weeks, living off of ramen, black tea and sleep. Every time I woke, the weight of remembering would crush my ribs and I’d gasp for air, but soon no tears would come. I’d just roll onto my back, clutch my shirt over my heart and wheeze like a raw clarinet. The world outside of my room waited for me in the background. Surpriiiiiise.
On the following Sunday, My RA, Penny, dragged me out of bed and to the dining hall. She forced a tuna sandwich and lemonade on me, told me she was concerned, and listed all the supports on campus for those who were dealing with “what happened.” I appeased her, letting the crust scratch a pathway down my throat. I concentrated on the neck muscles required in the performance, keeping my stinging eyes open and my head nodding. I stared at her mouth opening and closing, but all I heard was buzzing. I couldn’t stop thinking about the video Ms. Talbot had us watch during Linda and my first year there; it was of an elephant being beaten in the back tents of a circus. I had been amazed at how much elephants could put up with, how much they endure abuse even though they have the sheer strength to squash the head of the one with the whip in one swift step. They accept blow after blow after blow… until one day they break, and run free.
When Penny got up for a second helping of salad, I left the dining hall, wheeling myself as fast as my arms would push me toward the townhouse of the nurse on campus. I threw up the carefully curated meal of tuna fish and lemonade on the sidewalk, took a breather as I wiped off my shoe with some leaves, and sped up the ramp to Miss Maxine’s office. I asked for one of her extra crutches. When I got back to my room, I parked my chair in the corner, put my weight into my left leg and the crutch into the crook under my right arm. Alone in my tissue and ramen wrapper covered room, I practiced hobbling. I thought that walking around campus this way would make me look pitiful, but I had to stand in some way. Even my good leg didn’t have the strength and it would take some time to undo the underuse. I thought of how my doctors would be pleased and my mother would be… nonplussed, but it wasn’t for them. This was a one woman dance, but in my mind I was not alone. I started to gain some semblance of a stride, and a smile broke across my face, when I slipped and the crutch fell to the floor. Luckily my bed broke my fall. I reached toward the windowsill at the head of my bed, grabbed hold of my metal nail file, and with burning cheeks, carved Linda’s name into the grain of the crutch. When I finished, my hand was cramped from the hold on the tool. I traced my fingers along the fresh indents and told Linda that I would live out her dream for her.
Six months later, I graduated with an anthropology major, writing and journalism minor, and a picture of Linda on my cap. Mom was there, her silver-blonde hair tied into a severe bun. A couple weeks prior, I’d sent her a letter with the commencement date; the first communication I’d had with her in the four years since she’d dropped me off at school. I’d also written to ask her to inform my father and Jared of my graduation, as I was never told where to find them. They didn’t show, and in all honesty, I wasn’t surprised or upset. I’d never really known them.
When all was over, we walked slowly to the exit gate of the campus. She probably did so because of my crutch, but I told myself that she wanted to stretch the short time we had together. At her car, we hugged timidly and didn’t look at one another as we pulled away. She reached for her handle and stopped as if she’d met a force field. Turning to me again, I saw water in her eyes. “I’m sorry, Raven.”
She looked down at her hands. “I don’t feel like I earned my place here today… to see you succeed.” I opened my mouth to speak but knew she was right. “Never mind,” she said quickly, shaking her head. “Good luck with the Peace Corp.” And with that she got into her car and drove away. The black vehicle shrunk in the distance, disappearing like a roving insect.
That night, I packed my things into a small hiking bag, threw out the rest, and took a cab to the airport early the next morning for what would become three months of training, followed by two years of service in the Peace Corp. I just wanted to escape, go someplace fresh, and do something Linda would have wanted. On the small aircraft, the flight attendants offered to put my crutch in an overhead bin but I shook my head silently and turned my face away. I watched the tarmac sliding slowly underneath us through the rain spotted window and breathed a tentative exhale of relief. Soon I’d be in Kenya, and the States and my past would be long behind me.
I was stationed in Western Lowland Kenya, helping to rebuild the native villages that were destroyed during the previous rainy season. I was quickly and entirely immersed in the unknown, learning how to hold tools, hold conversations with the natives, and even how to hold in my bodily fluids when the only toilet for miles was a hole in the earth. I could never have guessed that the heat from the sun could feel so heavy or that the callouses on my hands could grow so strong. And although I kept mostly to myself, two months into the trip I found I had made one good friend. Nelson was a thirty-five year old, recently divorced Psychologist with a thoroughly analytical mind, balanced somehow by an optimism that rested in his tone. We’d bonded over the fact that we were the least acquainted with manual labor; he had joined because he was tired of helping people solely through the usage of his mind. Therefore, our Chief of Staff, named Hudson, usually left the smallest, most tedious jobs to the two of us.
Despite Nelson’s humorous lack of coordination, he never tired of acting as cheerleader. “We were given arms and legs so that we can use them,” he once chimed while we were scraping the polymeric sand from between pavers. He quickly flashed me an apologetic glance, but I smiled and waved it away. I told him how I had rolled along for too long in the comfort of my chair. After that, he took pains to avoid conversation of legs or walking; that is until one evening when, as we were packing up our tools and belongings, he approached me with one of his quizzical looks. “Come with me,” he said. I rolled my eyes at his authoritative air and obeyed, wondering whether he was in the mood to analyze or encourage. I noticed his gaze cascaded toward my crutch just before he said, “you walk with strength, but I’m not convinced it’s your walk.”
Perplexed, I replied, “I’m still learning to.”
“No, I don’t think that’s it. It’s as if you’re walking someone else’s path.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, but just then a tall native gentleman dropped one of the eighty pound cement bags in Nelson’s arms as we passed. Nelson buckled briefly under the weight, nodded to the man with a strained smile, and waddled toward the black pick-up that held the weighty pile of cement bags. I laughed as he scooted away, the bag dangerously slipping out of his grasp.
That night, I couldn’t sleep. I lay in my cot, listening to the musical murmur of insects attempting to slice their way through the mosquito nets in the shared tent. What had Nelson meant by “you’re walking someone else’s path?” I wondered. Maybe he could see through me and my wobbling gait. Maybe he knew something I didn’t about why I was really doing this.... Anthropology had been Linda’s dream, her reality. Was this all just a way for me to escape, to cope? What was my dream? These thoughts roved through my mind like the unrelenting patterns of the fat Kenyan mosquitoes, bouncing toward and away from the netting each time they failed to break through. I knew that I didn’t want to continue with anthropology after those two years were up. Connecting with people was never a skill of mine, no matter how much I’d wished it was. My mother’s voice intruded my thoughts: “That’s a good dream, but we all want a lot of things.” That’s when it hit me. I never really wanted to be a librarian. I just wanted to be something that I wasn’t, something that I had been told I never could be. I knew then, lying in my cot amidst the world of buzzing, croaking and chirping, that I wanted a different kind of connection… a new type of understanding, communion and belonging. Ever since I was young, before I even knew why I was drawn to them, I’d felt more of a relationship to elephants than to my own mother. And there I was, in Africa! Perhaps I hadn’t followed Linda’s dream to live it out for her. Maybe the drive to fulfill her wishes was meant to lead me toward mine.
Stepping into the scorching sunlight the following morning, I asked Hudson if he knew of a way we could see the elephants in the area. I suddenly possessed this growing, hungry compulsion, as if laying my eyes on these beasts in their untamed environment could somehow help me feel more whole, more able to walk in my own way.
“No,” he answered. There wasn’t even a hint of possibility in his voice. “Elephants are extremely dangerous in the wild. Like the chimps… not like the kind you see in the zoo.” At that dismissal, I nodded solemnly and cantered back toward those pesky paving stones with the putty knife in hand. I spent the rest of the day furiously scraping away.
That same week, however, I began to take walks alone through the jungle. Even if I had no path, I felt a little sturdier while carving one through the vegetation with my now tanned left leg and the grime covered wooden one wedged under my right arm. It wasn’t easy maneuvering over the bulbous ant-covered roots and thick ferns with my crutch, but I wanted to do something that the Peace Corp. hadn’t told me to. I wanted to choose my way through the foliage. It was during one of these pre-dinner walks through the African wild when I recalled the walk Linda and I had taken under the cherry tree in the Berkshires. I was reflecting on the poise she had shown when I’d insulted her birthmark, and her ability to love me anyway. I remembered how it was under that same tree that I looked on her Monet smile the last time. It was always with that tangy mixture of pain and beauty that I thought of her. In that dream, with Linda walking beside me, I looked up into the tree looming above me, expecting to see the same setting sun from years before, but met a pair of wild yellow eyes.
A shrill call reverberated from the creature’s gaping jowls, its mustard orbs boring down on me. A chimpanzee. I froze in my tracks. The brute hooted and tested his weight on the branches, shaking his fur as the pliable growth swarmed around him. I knew there was no hope of running, and I couldn’t remember if I was supposed to crouch down and play dead. Even a person with two legs didn’t stand a chance where I stood. All I could do was lower my head and divert my eyes, hoping it wouldn’t see me as a threat. My breath quaked in my ribs. I tried to appear as still and calm as I could manage as the initial call was answered by whoops and shrieks from surrounding trees. I could hear the furry masses crawling closer toward me in the branches above, the creaks of the wood under their weight and their panting breaths. I didn’t dare look up, but I knew I was surrounded.
The chimp that had found me pounded its fists against the bark, thrashing the trunk like a stiff rubber band. The air vibrated with the fury of his screams. Leaves showered down on me as I dug my nails into the handle of my crutch. I braced myself for the lurch, the sheer muscle and teeth that would end my life. I was rooted, paralyzed, sweat expanding through the thin fabric of my shirt as the primate clambered lower in the tree. I felt the air from its swinging blows wash over my head as it neared, when abruptly, a different call rang out through the forest.
Like a fog horn, it erupted through the leaves and shattered the chimps’ stations, dispersing them into the foliage above. At the thudding that resounded like waves of heart beats ringing up through my body from the ground, I dared to look. An enormous elephant was rushing toward me in a furious stride. The disturbed world shook around its frame. I quaked where I stood and dropped my crutch. The beautiful beast, grey and mighty, charged toward me as I attempted to bend my left knee and reach the crutch on the ground. It was nearing too close, too fast. Hudson’s warning echoed through my mind: “elephants are extremely dangerous in the wild. Like the chimps….” I fell backward and shuffled along the forest floor, out of the path.
As the creature passed where I was crouched, he emitted a succession of blasts and stomped around the area under the freshly unoccupied trees. He shook his head and his tusks feverishly. His pace slowed and the surrounding vegetation ceased swaying around him. I heard the thick air huffing through his swinging trunk. His tail twitched energetically. I watched him marching before me, when he rounded with his large head and lowered it. His ears flapped insects away from his curious, golden-brown eyes. A dormant thrill awoke within my throat. I gasped as I returned the gaze of this enormous being not five feet away, his eyes surrounded by creases that traveled upward as though smiling gently. I knew that I should be afraid but I reached out my hand, to which he blinked but did not move.
When I touched the rough skin of his trunk, I couldn’t hold it in any more. Any of it. The pain that I’d harbored and called my identity, the resilient self-pity that I’d tried and failed to abolish by walking, the sense that there was no one in the world to call family after Linda’s presence had left my life. Everything I’d held onto and held myself up with broke in that moment. I wept in relief as I stroked his hide, and he nuzzled me with his trunk. I don’t know how long we stayed like that, his coarse skin warming beneath my palm as it remained there. I was afraid that the connection between us would sever if I looked away. Maintaining eye contact, I leaned toward my crutch strewn on the ground to my left, grasped it firmly under my arm and pushed myself up. The creature straightened his stature and rose with me. I walked my hand along his side, feeling the immensity of this living being beneath my touch. I rounded behind his tail and came upon his other side, beaming up at him with wonder. As he looked down on me, I knew I was understood. It was as if he and I had known one another since birth, speaking in the language of mannerisms and silent looks. “Evan,” I called him. He bent his head toward mine. I stood enamored as he bowed his forehead to touch my own, nudging me gently. “Thank you,” I said through my streaming tears. At that, Evan righted himself and began to walk stoically back the way he had come, the last of the sunlight filtering through the canopy and sparkling off of his silver skin. I knew in this moment that I had a choice to make. I could watch my beautiful behemoth walk away and then wander back to my life before… or I could follow.
I chose the latter.
Sammie Rae Jones is a fiction and comedy writer from Cape Cod, Massachusetts. She is a recent graduate from UMASS Boston with an English MA in Creative Writing. In her spare time she enjoys reading, hiking and playing tennis, and she hosts a book review blog on sammieraesreads.com.